What if da Vinci had built that flying machine he was always rambling on about? What if Tesla got the upper hand over Edison and gave us all free energy? What if Harry Lewis had invented Facebook in 1997?
Up until a few years ago, that last one wasn’t a question alternate-historians had spent much time with. But thanks to revelations in an obscure blog post, it might be time to start pondering a massively different course social media came close to taking.
Lewis — a venerated 66-year-old Harvard computer science professor and former dean of Harvard College — has long been known as part of Facebook’s pre-history: Mark Zuckerberg took a class of his and created a proto-Facebook one-off site in January 2004 called “Six Degrees to Harry Lewis.” But years before that, Lewis came close to inadvertently snuffing Facebook before it could even become a glint in Zuck’s Exeter-trained eye.
In a post on his blog in February of 2012, Lewis copy/pasted a fascinating 1997 email back-and-forth with a top university administrator about the burgeoning “on-line facebooks” that some of the undergraduate houses were creating (one can only imagine the pages’ chilling '90s HTML formatting).
Quoth the administrator in the opening missive, dated October 6, 1997:
Given that some Houses have already moved to on-line facebooks and that others want to shall we just share the guideliens [sic] we developed with the houses so that they know how we view their participation in this project[.]
Lewis was eager to give it a go, but only if it were streamlined and widespread:
I would prefer that we develop a standard for harvard-wide [sic] access and make it as easy as possible for the Houses to plug their data into it, so there will be a disincentive for customization.
If his plan had worked, we could be living in a vastly different reality right now.
Here’s why. As of late 2003, Lewis’s dream still hadn’t come true and Harvard’s online facebooks were still notoriously messy and decentralized. Fatefully, The Harvard Crimson published a December 2003 editorial about how someone needed to put everything in order: “it is clear that the technology needed to create a centralized website is readily available; the benefits are many.”
Still reeling from the privacy debacle over Facemash, the hot-or-not site for which he was disciplined by Harvard administrators, Zuckerberg was allegedly inspired by the Crimson's editorial and subsequently doodled out thefacebook.com. All signs indicate that it was something of a whim, not a deeply felt dream project — after all, this is the guy who told a reporter a few months after the site’s genesis “If I hadn’t launched [thefacebook.com] that day, I was about to just can it and go on to the next thing I was about to do.” If a suitable facebook had already existed, Zuckerberg may never have bothered to design a replacement.
Students would have been glad to do it, but the ID file couldn’t just be handed to them; administrative computing could do it but always had higher priority things to do.
So why didn’t Lewis get his way? He told me he discussed the streamlining idea for years, but concerns over privacy and transparency kept it from ever taking off—ironic, given the way Facebook turned out.
Lewis told me there were two persistent issues that "kept coming up." First, "the desire not to post student’s photos (and perhaps other data) to the world without their permission, or to release that data to entrepreneurial students without any guarantees about what they would do with it."
The second issue was the IT department. Lewis said there was "difficulty in getting the project on the computing unit’s priority list, when it was always overburdened with development requests from academic departments, for pedagogical software, etc. Students would have been glad to do it, but the ID file couldn’t just be handed to them; administrative computing could do it but always had higher priority things to do."
And yet, one can’t help but wonder: what if it had worked and there was never a gap for Zuckerberg to fill? Would Friendster have become the world’s premier social networking tool? Would we recognize the kind of Internet our parallel-universe counterparts have been using for the past eight years or so? What would Silicon Valley look like? Would the Winklevoss twins still be Olympian rowers? Would Zuckerberg have devoted his energies to some other project that we can’t even imagine? Zuck has said the Arab Spring would’ve used “something else” as an organizing tool — but what could that “something” possibly have been? MySpace?
This story was originally published in February 2012, and republished in honor of Facebook's decade anniversary.